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Infinite living on a finite planet

Posterity will remember our Irish generation, for excess onlyIan Lumley 


Science is now unambiguously demonstrating the imperative to cut emissions  from agriculture, energy, and transport to mitigate possible runaway climate change, and to reverse species loss. On a global average people are now living lifestyles which would require one and a half planets to sustain, with massive differences between rich and poor nations.

The 2010 Living Planet Report, by the World Wildlife Fund, based on boom-time data, placed Ireland tenth highest worldwide in per capita resource consumption. The average Irish person uses just over the equivalent of six hectares, more than double the level in some other EU countries, such as Hungary and Romania. The worst offender is the United Arab Emirates.

Here’s what the excess looks like in practice.



The iconoclastic party-pooping truth is that the rich West needs actually to reduce emissions 90% by 2030 to avert a further rise of more than 1.2°C which could cause the Greenland icecap to melt and the Amazon forest to die, precipitating runaway global warming. This reduction is feasible if developed countries  peak their emissions in 2015 and reduce them by eight or nine percent a year afterwards. We can’t mess around with this target. According to Kevin Anderson, formerly head of the Tyndall Institute, Britain’s leading climate research centre, 4°C, for example “is absolutely catastrophic”. In fact, according to the latest science, he says, “a 4°C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable”. The conservative International Energy (IEA)’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, believes that, with current climate policies, the world is “perfectly on track” to cascade through this en route for a 6°C calamity, “unless there is a shift away from some of the fossil fuel energy now used for electricity generation and transportation”.

Overall, EU emissions reduced by over 15% between 1990 and 2010 while global emissions have increased by 45%, as China became the world’s largest polluter with 23% of global CO2 emissions.

Ireland is on target to meet its, concededly generous, 2012 Kyoto emissions allowance of an increase by 13% over 1990 levels. This is only partly due to investment in wind energy,  more efficient vehicle engines and the like. Were it not for the crash which reduced demand, we would be facing massive emissions-trading-scheme (ETS) costs. The unused allowances allocated to, for example, the cement industry have led to undeserved windfall gains to the most-highly-polluting industries as they sell off their unused ETS permits.

In any event, the figures calculated under the Kyoto and EU accounting process do not include shipping, aviation and the real consumption impact of individual countries through imports.

European Environment Agency data show Ireland having 12.8  tonnes emissions per capita, 50% ahead of Britain’s, with an EU average of 9.4 tonnes.

Ireland cannot meet the 20% target for reductions by 2020, adopted by the EU in the absence of a broader international agreement, while Government departments continue to adopt growth targets with the assumption that downstream environmental impacts can be discounted or left to unquantified retrospective adaptation.

The December 2012 Department of the Environment ‘National Climate Change Adaptation Framework’ offers only smug and vague objectives for ‘sectoral plans’, ‘local adaptation plans’ and ‘capacity building’ without legally-binding or specific targets. The government has been told by the attorney general not to have specific targets, such for example as those proposed by independent TD, Catherine Murphy, in the proposed climate-change bill as this would only lead to ‘endless visits to the courts’. Ireland is set to be the only country without targets in its climate change legislation. Indeed legislation for aspiration is not really legislation at all.



Of all the ecological problems humans are so casually generating, species loss is the most clearcut and the most under-recognised. No doubt this reflects Man’s Narcissism. The world is losing species at a rate that is 100 to 1000 times faster than the natural extinction rate, and the pace is speeding up. The International Union for Conservation of Nature believes that 25% of mammals now face extinction globally. The WWF’s Living Planet Index (which measures trends in biological diversity) found that global biodiversity declined by an astonishing 30% between 1970 and 2007.

A hundred researchers and policy experts from EU countries met in January 2012 to discuss how to organise the future UN Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity – an equivalent to the UN panel on climate change (IPCC). They concluded: “The biodiversity crisis – i.e. the rapid loss of species and the rapid degradation of ecosystems – is probably a greater threat than global climate change to the stability and prosperous future of humankind on Earth”.

According to BirdWatch Ireland, breeding waders such as Lapwing, Redshank and Curlew are declining at an alarming rate.  The last 20 years has seen a decline of 90% in the breeding population of Curlew in Ireland.  Whilst similar trends have been observed elsewhere, the scale and depth of these declines is such that forecasts indicate possible extinction of some species within the next 30 years. The declines are complex but largely attributed to a combination of intensification of land use – including drainage, and reseeding of semi-natural grasslands and increased mechanisation – as well as afforestation and other land use changes. Without successful CAP reform we can expect to see continuing declines in farmland bird populations.

Irish raised and blanket bogs are one of Europe’s most treasured eco-systems, attracting the highest level of protection under EU law. Raised bogs were formed by decaying vegetation on shallow glacial lakes. They built up over the level of the surrounding ground. Blanket bogs on the other hand cover undulating ground. While – mainly through turf-cutting and land reclamation – 45% of Irish blanket bogs have been lost, 99% of more-easily-cut raised bogs have been destroyed, and one-third of the remaining 1% has been lost in the last 10 years.

The current failure to protect the 53 Special Areas of Conservation for raised bogs and legal action by the European Commission is the result of failure to put in place measures identified as required  over 15 years ago. It was described by one Danish MEP as “one of the worst [breaches of the Habitats Directive] we have seen in a long time”. Inadequate measures such as “relocating” turf-cutting plots are now themselves creating legal problems and undermining peatland rehabilitation in other areas.

It is important to highlight the nature of the activities involved. Turf-cutting is sometimes characterised as ‘traditional’, conjuring images of men and women, slean in hand, cutting small quantities of turf for personal use. In fact, while some of the ancillary work involved is done by hand because it cannot be mechanised (e.g. footing (stacking) the turf to allow it to dry), the cutting itself is typically done by mechanical diggers and specialised machinery.



The 2011 ‘Our Ocean Wealth’ policy statement from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, like its sister policy, ‘Food Harvest 2020’, is driven by a short-term and narrow conception of the “ocean economy”.

The 2008 EPA State of the Environment report stated that as much of 75% of commercially-extracted fish species are being exploited “beyond safe biological limits”. Inexplicably the  EPA 2012 report fails to provide an update on ocean fisheries, or the development of 20 “dead zones” including many of the best known estuaries, such as those of the Barrow, Blackwater, Bandon, Slaney, Suir, and Feale Rivers; and of bays include Donegal Bay; and Harbours include Castletownbere, Killybegs, and Dungarvan. These are areas of seawater that have become depleted of oxygen, usually by algal blooms fed by increased nutrients entering the oceans from agricultural fertilizers and sewage.

The build-up of blankets of rotting sea lettuce in Clonakilty Bay has led to sulphur-dioxide (rotten eggs) smells so bad that a government task force is collecting 10,000 tons of rotting seaweed from local beaches each summer to protect  the local tourism industry, including the jewel in the crown, the Inchydoney Spa hotel.

The gambling company, Ladbrokes, has tastelessly been offering odds on the extinction of various fish species.

Thanks to British and Irish lobbying on 2013 fish quotas, the 55% cut recommended by scientists in the tonnage of haddock caught in the Celtic Sea was reduced to 15%, while  plaice, sole, scampi, whiting and herring quotas were increased, though the stocks are at a tiny fraction of their historic levels. Cod quotas were not reduced at all. Nearly half of the quotas set were in excess of the best scientific advice, according to the sea conservation organisation Oceana.

While total salmon farm production across Europe has stayed stagnant since 2000 because of problems with diseases, parasites, and warming waters, Ireland now wants to be a major fish-farmer. Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) is applying to enter the global caged-fish industry which is led by the Norwegian-based multinational, Marine Harvest. BIM has lodged an application for the first of three proposed caged-salmon clusters. Located in Galway Bay, the first phase alone would double the national production of farmed salmon. This significantly increases the risk of lice depleting wild Atlantic salmon as they migrate to Irish waters. In the case of the Connemara sea-trout fisheries, lice wiped out a whole sporting industry in the 1990s. It will discharge the fecal nutrient equivalent of more than twice the sewage of the population of Galway city itself. It turns a migratory fish species into a captive creature, requiring the use of chemicals that are fatal to other marine organisms. And fish farming  privatises the last commons. 50% of wild fisheries now go to feed farmed fish.



The 2010 Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry “Food Harvest 2020” policy is an over-reaching plan for growth targets, including increasing  milk yield by 50 %. It is very much an industry-driven document. It ignores UN goals of addressing poor nutrition in the world’s poorest countries. Instead it opportunistically targets growing Asian demand for pizzas, cheeseburgers and confectionery, exemplifying the embrace by the far-Eastern middle classes of an unhealthy western diet high in salt, sugar and saturated-fat.

As yet, there is no assessment, quantification or costing of the impacts of the policy on health, land-use, biodiversity, climate emissions or nitrate pollution.

The policy ignores the prospect that unpredictable seasonal variation in rainfall will reduce grassland growth or affect the cutting season, requiring increased feed import from a volatile global market. Equally the impact of slurry spreading on water quality is not addressed, in spite of the fact that Ireland now has the highest rate of bacteriological infection from E-coli and
cryptosporidium of any European country, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

On climate impact, the farming sector likes to argue that Ireland is a special case because largely-export-based beef and dairy account for nearly 30% of national emissions.

While there is much trumpeting at the passing of the 19 billion mark for food and beverage exports, there is little concern about imports, with fruit and vegetables at 1958 million – including 1324 million from Britain alone, meat at 1706 million, and dairy products at 1473 million. With total food imports valued at 15 billion, Ireland can be said to suffer from poor food security.

The assumption that the increased farm  production costs will result in individual farm benefit must also be questioned. ‘Unproductive’ farmers in disadvantaged areas are being cut from the grant scheme, further undermining rural life. Farmers who are left are squeezed into narrow margins by the big stock-market-quoted processing companies which  are no longer farmer co-ops, and the supermarket chains.



Ireland’s burning of coal, oil and gas, creates high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions as well as import dependence. There is no basis to claims that extraction of the Corrib Gas field will reduce Ireland’s gas imports, as the Shell-controlled field will be sold at the European market price, into the European gas market.

New technology and the changing global oil and gas market mean the fossil-fuel industry is exploring and extracting deeper and more dispersed oil and gas sources. Ireland is now facing a new wave of marine exploration in the Helvick field and Porcupine Basin, and even off Dalkey in Dublin. These evoke the risks evidenced by the  BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico which ravaged local biodiversity and coastal communities.

Pressure is growing at EU level to accommodate hydraulic fracking, a process that recovers oil from shale rock by injecting water and chemicals at high pressures. This creates not only a seismic and water pollution risk, but also requires large-scale extractive infrastructure. There is a likelihood of multiple Corrib–style conflicts across the upper Shannon.



Within a short number of years Ireland has been successful in increasing wind energy fourfold from 2005 levels. However, at 15% of the total there is still a long way to go to meet the 40% 2020 target as the best available sites have been taken. There are ecological conflicts to be faced up to and three major cases where peat slides were caused.

On top of this, Element Power and Bord na Móna are proposing hundreds of turbines in five midland counties for export to the UK grid.

Meanwhile in the midlands, three power stations built over the last decade burn peat, though it releases nearly twice the carbon emissions per electricity unit of the inefficient Moneypoint coal-power plant. Electricity consumers pay an annual levy of 136 million on their bills for this. This undermines the benefit of carbon taxes. It is also one hundred times the grant to Irish environmental organisations. There is no timetabled exit strategy for phasing out inefficient peat-burning stations. A current proposal for a phased increase in the use of biomass material with peat simply delays the day peat becomes a fuel pariah.




Ireland is still building motorways and closing railways. Overall capital expenditure by the Department of Transport and Tourism in 2012 was down by €267m to €1,231m. Funding for national road restoration and improvements will fall from €680m in 2011 to €605m in 2012 and to €278m in 2013, €288m in 2014 and €253m in 2015. While new motorway construction contracts came to an end with the crash, in 2012 new Public Private Partnerships  were negotiated for major sections of motorway – for the N11 bypassing Enniscorthy and the N25 New Ross ‘bypass’ and for the N17/N18 Gort to Tuam road. Although €370m is being spent linking Dublin’s Luas tram lines, Metro North and the DART Underground have been long-fingered, the Waterford-Rosslare railway was closed in 2010, the Western Rail Corridor is not now to be extended to Tuam and, according to Leo Varadkar Minister for Transport, the ailing Limerick Junction-Waterford and Manulla Junction-Ballina are  being looked at by “number-crunchers”.

The move towards more efficient vehicles has been driven as much by the price of fuels as by progressive VRT. While there is potential for better promotion and support for walking and cycling, overall, cars are unsustainable. Even of the best technologies, hydrogen cars are a distant prospect and electric cars are expensive, depend on increasingly-scarce lithium for batteries, generate “range anxiety” and have not benefited from promised infrastructure including recharging stations. Ireland only saw 46 electric cars registered in 2011.



In 2011 the Dept of Transport renewed the subsidies for Dublin services to Kerry and Donegal Airports and discontinued those to Sligo, Knock, Galway, Kerry and Derry. In the case of Galway Airport, this means that much of the potential air travel would divert to Shannon and Knock airports instead. There has been no operational or capital funding to Galway or Sligo airports from 2012 onwards.

The boom left the state airports  debt-burned  and with huge passenger overcapacity. The DAA owes €500m largely due to its foolish investment in the country’s largest white elephant, Dublin’s Terminal 2. Passengers through Shannon have halved to 1.6m in the five years from 2007, mainly through the loss of Ryanair services and the loss of Aer Lingus winter transatlantic services. Cork lost €14 million in 2011.

In general tourism must address the emissions generated by aviation, which studies show benefits largely the wealthiest in society.

There is no interest from government in development of low-carbon passenger ferries or a more efficient rail-sail link between Ireland and main population centres in Britain and beyond.



The state-owned Dublin, Cork, Galway and Foynes ports are currently preparing applications for large-scale expansion, while the speculative ambitions of Bremore in Meath are entwined with those  of defunct Treasury Holdings (Ireland).

Dublin Port Company aims to handle 60 million tonnes of goods by 2040, a doubling of its current throughput. In 1981, it was handling just seven million tonnes of goods. It is currently  building a compound to store up to 2300 imported cars.

Greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping activity currently account for around 3% of total global emissions, around the same level as aviation’s. There was no mention of the word ‘climate’ in relation to the 2010 Department of Transport’s ‘Ports Policy Review Consultation Document’. The only three references to the word are all in relation to economic climate only. No heed is paid to the energy and waste consequences of export-dependence or the opportunity cost in terms of developing community and locality-based produce.



The Troika bailout required the sale of State assets.  Minister Simon Coveney confirmed in December 2012 that sale of Coillte harvesting rights for 70 or 80 years is being considered. The result would be control by a multinational investment fund indifferent to local employment and tourism development, lack of control over the best future use of timber stock, conflicts between chemical use and nature conservation and threat to amenity and recreational access. The UK Government’s 2011 forestry privatisation plan was scuppered by ferocious reaction from the Tory shires. Despite growing development of outdoor recreation, some Coillte-led, the public opposition to the proposed sell-off has been feeble. Furthermore a  recent report commissioned by the Coillte branch of the Impact trade union  and written by economist, Peter Bacon suggests that the sale “no longer stands up and cannot be justified”.



For years Ireland has had one of the worst records in the EU in terms of environmental infringement cases, but until recently the government had somehow avoided the ultimate penalty of a fine.  Under Minister Phil Hogan the total number of EU environmental cases has fallen from a high of 34 in 2009 to 12 today.  However, the responsibility for this decrease is unclear, since the settlement of certain cases could be attributable (at least in part) to actions by previous governments.  Of Ireland’s 12 ongoing cases, it is significant that around two-thirds of these are proceedings for fines – that is, cases where the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has already declared a breach and the government simply drags its feet, such that it is necessary for the European Commission to seek the imposition of fines to enforce the ECJ’s earlier judgment.

Over the past year the Commission finally lost patience with Ireland and decided to refer three of these cases back to the ECJ for a fine – genuinely a measure of last resort. The ECJ gave its judgment in two of the cases in December 2012, in cases relating to septic tanks and environmental impact assessment (EIA), respectively. In respect of the EIA case, the ECJ imposed a lump sum fine of 11.5m. And in respect of septic tanks, the ECJ imposed a lump sum fine of 12m and daily penalty of 112,000 (calculated from 19 December 2012 until Ireland complies with the ECJ’s 2009 judgment in the septic tanks case). The government recently claimed to the media that this daily fine would cease at the end of January 2013, but this does not appear to be the case, since it seems the Commission remains unconvinced that the government has complied with the ECJ’s judgment.

Only three other EU countries have previously been fined in the environmental field – Greece, Spain, and France – and Ireland is the first country in the history of the EU to be fined twice in respect of environmental law breaches.



The idea that resource consumption can increase indefinitely on a finite planet is untenable. Yet this is the basis of the global market economy which depends on continued growth.

Ireland’s post-crash economic-recovery model is to promote tax-avoiding multinational investment, aviation-based tourism and agri-business indifferent to climate and ecological constraints. There is an alternative path, building new community and economic structures based on co-dependence on the natural world and our neighbours and regard to the future.

But that would require planning.


Ian Lumley is Heritage Officer for An Taisce